Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Nicholas Winding Refn
Stars: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Oscar Isaac, Bryan Cranston, Albert Brooks, Ron Perlman.
Maverick Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn makes tough, unflinchingly brutal and uncompromising dramas like his Pusher trilogy and the physically bruising Bronson. For his first American film, Refn has made a dark and downbeat hard boiled noir-like thriller that has moments of quiet punctuated by sudden explosive bursts of graphic, bloody violence. Refn brings an outsider’s perspective to his depiction of LA, particularly at night when it appears as a sleazy, neon-lit and somehow threatening place that recalls Scorsese’s view of New York in his classic Taxi Driver. Newton Thomas Sigel’s gorgeous cinematography gives the film a suitably retro look, and he shoots in long, fluid takes.
Ryan Gosling plays the anonymous titular hero, a Hollywood stunt driver, who moonlights as a getaway driver for criminals. He has a strict code of rules for this line of work, and in the bravura opening sequence we get a glimpse of his methodology. But he is something of a loner. When he becomes emotionally involved with his pretty neighbour Irene (Carey Mulligan, from An Education, etc) he breaks some of his cardinal rules, which has horrific consequences.
Her husband (Oscar Isaac) has just been released from prison but is in debt to some gangsters. He agrees to hold up a pawnshop, and our hero reluctantly agrees to drive for him. But things go wrong and all of a sudden he finds himself caught up in a web of betrayal and violence, and targeted by some pretty ruthless people.
Refn’s Bronson was a claustrophobic and tough drama driven by Tom Hardy’s relentlessly physical performance, whereas Drive is a more subtly nuanced, atmospheric ensemble piece. Refn’s direction earned him a best director gong at Cannes this year.
We don’t learn much about Gosling’s enigmatic, taciturn antihero, which makes his sudden proficiency at violence all the more startling and unsettling. Gosling’s performance is subtle and largely introspective, and his air of imperturbable cool and ever present toothpick is reminiscent of the likes of Eastwood and Steve McQueen in their heyday.
Cast against type comic Albert Brooks brings a malevolent air to his role as Bernie, the seemingly urbane head of a criminal organisation who runs his operation from a pizza shop in a strip shopping mall. Ron Perlman is volatile and physically intimidating as his partner Nino, who thinks violence is the best solution to any problem. Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston, who seems to be very busy all of a sudden, brings a suitably weary quality to his role as Shannon, Gosling’s mentor. Mulligan brings a fragile charm and delicate vulnerability to her role, but she is underused here.
Drive is an effective, smart and stylishly made homage to the modern noir films of 60’s and 70’s Hollywood, and it more than confirms Refn’s early promise as a director to watch. Films like Peckinpah’s The Getaway, John Boorman’s Point Blank and Peter Yates’ Bullitt are obviously reference points for Refn, but Drive also shares a few surface similarities with Walter Hill’s gritty thriller The Driver. However, Refn has infused the material with a distinctly European feel; this is an art house heist movie. He brings an energy to the car chase sequence, which has a realism that sets it apart from most of the spectacular, but empty stunt filled testosterone-driven escapist fare of films like Fast And Furious and its ilk.
The script from British screenwriter Hossein Amini (The Wings Of A Dove, The Four Feathers, etc) is beautifully sparse, and Refn’s tight and stylish direction is brutally efficient and shows a great understanding of the genre. The pulsating, synthesised score from Cliff Martinez (who also scored Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion) also adds to the energy.